How long has it been since September 11? Exactly as long as the Second World War lasted for Americans. Leaving aside the geopolitical comparison (that is, the last time the U.S. suffered a devastating surprise attack, the correct response—all-out war against our fascist enemies—was plain), it’s striking that our parents and grandparents managed to win World War II in 44 months while we have not been able even to agree on a plan for what to do with ground zero.
“It’s a fucking mess,” the lawyer Ed Hayes said, first off, when I called him about the latest unraveling of the project. Hayes’s clients include ground-zero architect Daniel Libeskind and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and he’s close to Governor Pataki. “It could be catastrophic.”
Okay. When we wind up in fucking messes in our personal or professional lives, don’t we find it best to admit our errors and start fresh? But no, Senator Schumer told the Post, “we ought to not go back to the drawing board.” No, last week’s nervous New York Times editorial agreed, “to redo the entire plan for rebuilding ground zero . . . would be a mistake, a waste of precious time and formidable talent.”
But most of that time and talent have already been wasted. Libeskind’s original design for a spiraling, asymmetrical Freedom Tower was abandoned almost two years ago when he was forced by Pataki, his patron, into a doomed, viciously dysfunctional partnership with David Childs, the World Trade Center’s hired architect from Skidmore Owings and Merrill. The product of their two-year “collaboration” was an awkward mongrel design that Kelly’s NYPD has now vetoed on security grounds. In his desperately resolute recent statements about ground zero, Pataki is trying to have it both ways, suggesting that they both were and weren’t really starting over. “I have no doubt,” he said, “that David Childs will come up with yet another magnificent design.” In other words, back to the drawing board, without the little dude in the funny glasses—but only as briefly as possible.
Libeskind has been spinning deliriously from the end of the plank he has been walking. According to the Times, he professed himself confident that “the intent and spirit of the master plan . . . would remain even if the shape of the building changed.” But it is not just the shape (and material) that has to be changed—Freedom Tower must move east toward Greenwich Street, farther from hypothetical West Street truck-bombers, which may well squeeze the hypothetical performing-arts center out of existence, in one stroke changing the intent and spirit of that whole quarter of the master plan. And exactly what is so visionary about the rest of Libeskind’s plan, anyhow? Filling three new blocks along the eastern half of the site with three mammoth office towers is the sort of urban planning kids can do playing Sim City.
All the ground-zero design work is a sunken cost, as economists say, and the sensible course now is to learn from the mistakes, not to stick with the flawed plan simply because we’re behind schedule and frustrated and embarrassed. Given that the whole complex will take ten or twenty years to finish, and may last a century or more, what’s another six months now? Only lately have most of us come to our post-9/11 senses. It’s time to move beyond our denial (reproduce the Twin Towers!) and anger (build them taller!) to acceptance—of the unpleasant truths and the practical obligations of remaking this piece of the city. Let’s really go back to the drawing board, not just hastily to redesign and reposition the Freedom Tower but to rethink the whole scheme. Let’s not squander this latest opportunity as we’ve squandered so many during the past 44 months.
It was a wasted opportunity when Giuliani let Pataki take control of the rebuilding—a cynical, mistaken trade of the city’s interests for presumed Republican partisan advantage. It was a wasted opportunity when Pataki and Bloomberg did not use the extraordinary, whatever-it-takes spirit after 9/11 to purge the 900-pound gorillas (the Port Authority and its World Trade Center leaseholder, Larry Silverstein) by buying off Silverstein, and by trading the city-owned land under La Guardia and JFK for the Port’s Trade Center site, a brilliant scheme by Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff that Pataki pocket-vetoed. When the first, bland master-plan sketches appeared three summers ago, Bloomberg complained that they were essentially identical—no leave-it-mostly-empty option, no build-some-housing option—but then he never pressed the issue.